The top of the world had a new navy visit its waters recently.
When five Chinese warships were spotted off the coast of Alaska last summer, the Pentagon announced, although no threatening activities had been detected, the vessels’ intent was unclear. Never before had Chinese ships been seen in that area. Though they were in international waters and passed without incident, the flotilla, made up of three combat ships, a supply ship, and an amphibious vessel came as close as twelve miles to the Alaskan coastline.
Beijing’s navy might become a more common occurrence in the Arctic, and the US had better get used to it.
One of the foremost reasons are the economic prospects of the Arctic that can be attributed to the emergence of new waterways caused by melting ice. These newly accessible waterways have turned the Arctic into a more navigable ocean and allowed access to billions in untapped resources. The United States Geological Survey believes the area north of the Arctic Circle contains an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas.
Another, purely political reason why China has interests in the north is its desire to become an Arctic power and compete with both the U.S and Russia for influence in the region. In the last few years Beijing have made numerous steps to achieve this goal. For instance, China is actively pursuing a spot as a permanent member of the Arctic Council. Currently, they are an approved observer nation, but if permanent status is obtained China would be allowed to vote with the Council on issues concerning the entire Arctic.
Though China’s status in the Arctic Council remains in limbo, they have proceeded to boost their Arctic capabilities by building its very first icebreaker. In 2012 this icebreaker, called Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, became the first Chinese ship to traverse the Northeast Passage above Russia. Due to the success of the Xuelong, China has begun construction on a second icebreaker. When completed, China’s icebreaker fleet would be equal to that of the United States.
The reasons for China’s interest in the Arctic are rather simple and unsurprising. They are a combination of economic and show-of-force motives that Beijing has pursued in other regions of globe. Why is it then the Pentagon claimed the reasons for China’s presence in the Arctic were unknown?
When examining past analysis, it is clear the intelligence community has a pattern of inconsistent assessments, causing the United States to fall behind in Arctic preparedness.
Over the last five years, the ODNI’s Worldwide Threat Assessments have almost completely neglected the Arctic region. From 2010 to 2013, the word “Arctic” is only mentioned once, and it is in a short sentence about rising sea temperatures. It is not until the Worldwide Threat Assessment of 2014 that the Arctic receives its own, short, paragraph.
It notes: “As polar ice recedes, economic and security concerns will increase competition over access to sea routes and natural resources. Some states see the Arctic as a strategic security issue that has the potential to give other countries an advantage in positioning in their military forces.”
Though it does not specifically mention China or Russia it is encouraging to see the region garnered attention from the intelligence community.
Unfortunately, that attention it was short-lived. In 2015, the Arctic was once again absent from the Worldwide Threat Assessment. What makes the multiple omissions so concerning is that over these past five years there has been significant activity in the Arctic, most notably by Russian vessels.
Under President Vladimir Putin, there has been rapid development and modernization of the Russian military in the Arctic including, but not limited to, the construction of new airfields, deep water ports, air defense radar stations, and a drone base. The military expansion also
includes the construction of eleven more icebreaker ships, which will bring their total to 51. In January 2015, Russia even established their first Arctic brigade and two months later Vladimir Putin ordered a full military combat exercise in the Arctic involving 40,00 troops and dozens of submarines and warships.
This activity proves the Worldwide Threat Assessments are more than just inconsistent, they are also incorrect. The scant information about the Arctic that does occasionally appear in a Threat Assessment falls short of the reality, and severity, of what is known to be happening in the region. With China’s growing ambitions, if this trend of assessment continues, the United States will be playing Arctic catch-up with not just Russia, but China as well.
Though minor steps have been taken to improve intelligence regarding the Arctic region, there remains much more that needs to be done. For example, the ODNI recently convened a “strategy board” to bring together analysts from different intelligence agencies to share their finding about the Arctic. However, it may be too little, too late. In order to improve intelligence about the region concrete action must be taken and the Arctic must be treated as a priority.
One way in which the Arctic could receive the attention it deserves, and needs, is for CIA to establish a mission center completely devoted to the region. As a part of the CIA’s recent reorganization, ten new mission centers were established dedicated to various threats and parts of the globe; but none cover the Arctic. Having its own mission center would allow the Arctic to be a permanent focus of the agency rather than just an inconsistent afterthought. If the CIA established an Arctic mission center, they could use the data and intelligence they gathered to encourage both the government and military to improve the country’s Arctic readiness.
It is long past time the Arctic get the attention it deserves. At the rate at which the ice is melting the Arctic will only get busier and ambitions will only grow stronger. The United States needs to take the necessary steps in order to stay competitive in the Arctic and intelligence community must play an integral role.
photo: the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong. (State Council Information Office and the China International Publishing Group (CIPG) in Beijing.)
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